Disability Benefits for Severe TMJ

TMJ doesn't usually affect people to the point where they can't work, but if it does, disability benefits may be available.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School

Temporomandibular joint disorders (commonly called TMJ) occur when there is a problem with the jaw, jaw joint, and surrounding facial muscles that control the chewing and the movement of the jaw. TMJ is often caused by teeth grinding, or bruxism, or injury to the temporomandibular joint.

Individuals who have TMJ can usually handle the symptoms through self-care, including avoiding hard foods, icing their jaw, or taking over-the-counter medications when in pain. However, if the TMJ is severe enough, it can affect other parts of your body and can lead to disability. If your TMJ is severe enough that it affects your ability to work, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Disabling Symptoms of More Severe TMJ

Symptoms of severe TMJ can include:

  • extreme difficulty opening and closing your mouth
  • frequent locking of the jaw
  • severe pain in the neck, head, and ears
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
  • speech deficits
  • vertigo
  • hearing difficulties
  • light sensitivity
  • lower back pain, and
  • tingling or numbness in the fingertips of one or both hands.

People who suffer from TMJ are also more likely to have migraines and/or restless leg syndrome.

    Qualifying for Disability Benefits

    There are several ways to qualify for disability benefits through Social Security: you must show that you meet or equal the requirements of one of Social Security's listed disabilities or that you are unable to work any type of job. And your inability to work must be expected to last a least a year.

    Meeting a Disability Listing

    To "meet a listing," you must prove that you have an impairment that is listed in the Social Security "blue book."The blue book explains what impairments automatically qualify you for disability benefits, and what symptoms or test results you must have to meet the requirements for that impairment listing.

    There is no specific listing for TMJ in the blue book, but there are some listings that you may be able to meet with TMJ, depending on your impairments. Below are some of the impairments that may be met by those who are suffering from severe TMJ.

    • Listing 2.07: Disturbance of labyrinth-vestibular function: for those who suffer from vertigo.
    • Listing 2.08: Loss of speech: for those who have developed impairments in speech due to the inability to properly use your mouth to speak.
    • Listing 2.09: Hearing loss: for those who have suffered hearing loss; tinnitus may play a role in further limiting your ability to hear properly.
    • Listing 5.08: Weight loss: for those who have difficulty eating due to extremely limited jaw movement.

    Unable to Work Due to Limitations

    For those with severe TMJ, the individual symptoms may not be enough to meet a listing. It's more likely that someone with TMJ would qualify for disability benefits by proving their symptoms and limitations prevent them from working, rather than by meeting a listing.

    To decide whether you should be able to work, Social Security looks at physical, mental, and sensory impairments and abilities and develops a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) for you. In addition, the agency will consider your age, education level, and work history.

    Social Security assesses physical abilities such as the ability to lift, reach overhead, and carry objects, the ability to do work with your hands (including non-exertional activities like typing and filing papers), and the ability to walk, stand, and sit for periods of time. For those with severe TMJ, pain in the neck, head, ears, and lower back may limit the ability to perform both exertional and non-exertional activities at work due to discomfort when performing such tasks. For example, severe neck pain could be worsened by having to type on a keyboard for any period of time, and lifting and carrying boxes may be seriously limited due to lower back pain.

    With regards to physical abilities and pain, Social Security will consider chronic pain in conjunction with your impairments. However, the agency will need to see medical test results that show a valid source for the level of pain you are experiencing. In other words, the Social Security medical consultant on your case must agree that TMJ could reasonably create the symptoms you're experiencing. For more information, see our article on how Social Security evaluates chronic pain.

    Social Security also assesses your mental abilities, including the ability to understand and complete tasks as assigned and your ability to function in the workplace with others. For those with severe TMJ, speech and hearing impairments may affect their ability to interact effectively with others in the workplace. Those impairments may also hinder the ability to understand what is being asked of them with regard to tasks. Pain could also affect one's ability to maintain attention to tasks.

    Sensory abilities that are assessed for your RFC include the ability to hear and speak properly, as well as the ability to function in various work situations. For those with severe TMJ, hearing and speech impairments could affect their ability to function properly in certain environments. For example, those with hearing and/or speech impairments may not be able to perform jobs that include a lot of time on the telephone. Additionally, light sensitivity may limit the places where an individual may work. Tingling or loss of feeling in the fingers could cause safety concerns in certain job situations as well.

    Social Security will consider the combined effects of all of your impairments when determining your ability to work. After considering all of your limitations, Social Security will decide whether you're eligible for a "medical-vocational allowance." For more information. see our article on medical-vocational allowances.

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